The danger of being black in a formerly green country: new Libya, old racism


“Hey Abid, why are you here? Do not take anything, okay? I know what your people do.” Aimed towards the ears of a black man whom had just entered, the hoarse voice of Lamin echoed throughout the mosque. The black worshiper left. I turned towards Lamin, an elderly Libyan migrant from Misrata whom I had met recently. I asked if he knew the man whom just left. He replied “no, I do not know him, but I know his people.” I was confused why he called him ‘Abid’. To my natural question of how he knew the man’s name, he replied “all of us in Misrata call blacks Abid. They are fake Libyans, since we are white Arabs. All these Abid are criminals: they steal everything, our jobs, our homes and even lands because Gaddafi likes them”. Abid was a nickname charged with a painful reference to the dark history of slavery, so common in the history of Mediterranean countries. In Libya, the slave trade continued at least until the 1930s, although some cases can still be documented today. Indeed Abid means slave.

After further discussion with Lamin, it was clear that he was extremely racist. It was through Lamin that I came to know of a tragic event in recent Libyan history that international mass media had barely documented. In October 2000, Libyan black African migrants and the nearly one million black citizens suffered racist violence that erupted after being triggered by an economic crisis and long-simmering widespread racism. This was not the first (nor the last) time that the blacks of Libya suffered mistreatment and racism, but in the year 2000 there was a clear attempt to ‘clean’ the country of them.

Despite Gaddafi’s claims of pan-Africanism, his regime espoused Arabization and Arabs were educated for years to feel superior to the black Libyan population. Although not all Libyans are racists, even in Libyan forums and discussions there is a general perception that a major section of the society is, particularly within the Misrata region. Indeed, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) expressed concern several times about Libya’s alleged “acts of discrimination against migrant workers on the basis of their national or ethnic origin.”

In 2004, the CERD by rejecting “Libya’s categorical denial of the existence of any racial discrimination within its borders” asked the Libyan government to effectively track racial discrimination. Gaddafi’s government answered, “[i]t is possible to state categorically that there is no racial discrimination of any kind in Libya. The fact that all Libyan citizens share a common origin, religion and language has undoubtedly been a determining factor in the absence of racial discrimination in the country.”  Since Libyan society is “free from racial discrimination, it has not felt the need to enact special legislation to combat the phenomenon.” Today, we can see the result of such a decision.

As I have mentioned in my previous post, while the actions of Gaddafi’s army were scrutinized and NATO officially intervened under a UN mandate to protect the Libyan civilians, the new rebels’ actions, intentions and values have never been questioned by the western powers– blinded as they were by geopolitical and economic interests. Hence, as I have also explained in one episode of my podcasts, Libya has faced not one but two revolutions.

One revolution was very similar to other Arab Spring revolts, like for instance that of Egypt or Tunisia. This first revolt was popular, supported by young people, and it crossed the tribal, religious and ethnic lines. Gaddafi was successful in crushing it. Then, starting from the initial one, tribal leaders took a more violent approach and felt that it was time for a military struggle since many western countries would be sure to support it.

This second revolt was far less innocent being that it was tainted by tribal related issues, divisions and aims together with the involvement of extreme Islamic groups and imams as protagonists (some of whom, as part of their interpretation of the Shari’a, support enslavement -including the sexual enslavement- of non-Muslim polytheists, as some African migrants are).

This second revolt has reopened many wounds in Libyan society, and anti-black propaganda was one of these. Although in Gaddafi’s army there were both some black mercenaries from Sudan and Chad in particular, black soldiers from the Libyan population were common. When rebels started to spread stories of the horrific actions of black mercenaries, it provoked a real man-hunt where any black African may be considered a ‘mercenary’ and duly killed, tortured or detained in inhuman conditions.

Meanwhile the many white European mercenaries, often in charge of the operations and responsible for the worst crimes, were left untouched by the ‘anti-mercenary’ rhetoric and many of them, if not the majority, were able to leave the country unchallenged, which sporadically mass media have reported (see a well presented video here).

Clearly we cannot believe that, knowing the modern history of ethnic troubles in Libya, the rebels’ claims that all blacks arrested or killed were ‘mercenaries’ — as indeed more and more evidence shows.  The reality, which major mass media in Europe, Arab countries and the US do not want to show, is that what it is at work in Libya today, with the full support of the US and European countries, is the same feeling that brought many Libyan Arab citizens to organize anti-black pogroms in 2000.

The revolt has offered the perfect cover to do a dirty job in a ‘clean’ way with the blessing of the world. Intentions are clear in the fields but the members of the National Transitional Council, in their  suits and ties and luxurious hotel rooms paid for by EU tax, will never admit what graffiti in Libyan cities openly declare.

However racism is not just on the other side of the Mediterranean. Indeed while migrant workers from other countries, like China, were evacuated often in cooperation with other nations, many black-African migrants were left to their horrible destiny. Some left the Libyan coasts in dangerous boats in the hope of reaching Italy or Malta. The majority of these desperate people were black Libyans and African migrants, many of whom NATO left to drown at sea.  The real nature of those boats were never explained to Italian and European audiences: they were not just refugees escaping from war, they were the result of the beginnings of an ethnic cleansing.

Timid calls are now made for the Libyans to restrain their racist attacks and for the NTC to pass from beautiful words to action. However I have little hope (also because of the precedent of Darfur) that, even if mass media and bloggers start to show the dreadful reality in Libya, the EU and NATO would sacrifice their interests, which by proxy are helping Libya to be a white Arab and possibly radical-Islamic country.

The much-championed principles of human rights, freedom of religion and expression, together with anti-racism, appear fragile when economic and geopolitical interests are at stake. The risk that in the new Libya the national black population will be dispersed and African migrant workers directly or indirectly killed is not a remote possibility but rather a reality which is progressing even while you are reading these words.

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2 thoughts on “The danger of being black in a formerly green country: new Libya, old racism

  1. I am not going to address Libya, as I don’t like commenting on things I know little about. But I am very disturbed at the response from the West over the killings of black Libyans and migrant workers. It has been severely under- reported and it is only this week that the Australian National media is reporting on alleged ‘abuses’ (their words) in Libya and they are still describing the victims as mercenaries. And what has further disturbed me is that Ghana and Nigeria is recognising the NTC, without as much as a peep over the safety of their own citizens. I am wondering exactly what is behind the Western response to what is clearly an act of genocide.

  2. I found your article while browsing the net. It’s interesting that the word “abid” is etymologically related to a common Semitic word for “slave”. I was also greatly disturbed by the uncritical acceptance of the Libyan rebel position by the Western media, even if the only good thing I can say about Qaddafi is that he looked as if he might have been the natural son of Chico or Harpo Marx.

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